Amazon Alexa: ready to take care of your health as well

In the US, the new “health” features of the Alexa voice assistant are on the verge of being implemented, allowing people to monitor their health, prescriptions, and daily therapies. There are many advantages, but even grey areas, for example: what about the privacy of health data?

Published on 20 Apr 2019

Barbara Bosco


The announcement was made through Alexa Blog in early April. 

 We are excited to announce that the Alexa Skills Kit now allows selected companies subject to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) to develop Alexa’s capabilities to transmit and receive protected health information, as part of an invitation-only program. As of today, six new Alexa healthcare ‘skills’ have been developed with leading healthcare providers, pharmaceutical service providers and digital healthcare coaching companies, now operating in our HIPAA environment. In the future, a number of other developers are expected to benefit from this opportunity. 

A brief introduction: Alexa is the cloud-based voice service and intelligence that powers Amazon Echo and other devices using built-in Alexa. Alexa provides voice capabilities, called Skills, that allow the user to create a more personalized experience through verbal communication-based interaction. Alexa is also an open platform for third parties to develop skills for their own purposes: the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) is a collection of self-service APIs, tools, documentation and code examples that make developing skills on Alexa faster and easier for third parties. ASK allows software developers, designers and brands to create interesting skills and reach customers through Amazon Echo and other devices. 

What exactly does this Amazon news mean? From a business point of view, Amazon is increasingly within the health industry, where already has taken several initiatives. 

It is doing so by bringing its technology and standard of customer experience into this industry: Alexa Skills Healthcare Kit will allow to promote a new kind of experience in managing personal health. The skills mentioned in the advert are in fact the voice programs that will allow people, only with the use of voice, to manage a variety of health needs at home, naturally and easily, whether it be to book a medical appointment, remember to take pills, check their blood tests. 

Wired US has titled an article “Alexa, how’s my blood sugar today?”. This is the future of digital health, according to Amazon. 

On the one hand, Amazon has developed the enabling technology and, on the other hand, it is involving public and private healthcare companies, pharmacy companies and insurance companies, i.e. operators in the US that deal with people’s health and have health data at their disposal. The advantages are unquestionable and concern accessibility and ease of use; but the disadvantages? 

Data and privacy issues

The main health privacy law in the United States – the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) – states that health information may only be shared among patients and those in the health system, such as doctors or hospitals. This means that information such as medical diagnoses and pharmaceutical prescriptions is not available to third parties.  Amazon apparently has created a way for companies to deliver this information via Alexa devices and ensures it is kept HIPAA-compliant. There is already a kind of ‘trial’ started with 6 companies smaller than the giants in this industry, but important, here are some examples: Express Script customers can use Alexa to check the delivery status of their prescriptions; Livongo customers can connect Alexa to their glucose detectors and ask for information on reading glycaemia; patients of the ERAS (Enhanced Recovery After Surgery) program of Boston Children’s Hospital can receive information on appointments through Alexa. 

Smart builidng: tecnologie, vantaggi e applicazioni

While all this has the extraordinary benefit of making more accessible and more effective the personal care, on the other hand some doubts exist: what about privacy? several observers ask. It must be clear that such an operation makes private health data more accessible to the user, but also to Alexa, namely to Amazon, which is entering the health sector, yet it is a tech company, an ecommerce, and many other things, but not exactly a pure health company. 

The Verge magazine carried out some analyses, revealing that a lot depends on the agreements between Amazon and each single operator involved, on which not much is yet known: in the case of Livongo, a healthcare company that has developed an app for Alexa that allows users to ask for the reading of blood sugar, Alexa is above all a way of delivering information. When a patient asks Alexa to check their blood glucose reading, the device accesses that data on the Livongo cloud and communicates it to the patient. But the patient information is stored by Livongo and Amazon cannot use it in any way, assured Amar Kendale, Livongo’s Chief Product Officer at The Verge. 

In other cases, the situation may be different. It is possible that patient information can be shared and used to train one of Amazon’s artificial intelligence algorithms, could be used for marketing, to provide information on new services, even if this is not related to the patient’s health needs. In short, there are many dark spots, also because there is no official certification process to obtain compliance with the HIPAA (i.e. the law on privacy mentioned above), which is entrusted primarily to the good will of the operator, although supervisory boards exist. 

Charlotte Tschider, an expert in health law at the DePaul University, asked by the newspaper, said: “I am concerned about how a large organization that also sells me things, could use my health information”. 

As mentioned earlier, these are features currently being developed by Amazon for the US market. The way to implement the same thing in Europe and Italy could be far, far more strenuous and involves the GDPR. 

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Barbara Bosco

Giornalista pubblicista e web copywriter, lavora soprattutto per stampa specializzata, web e collabora con agenzie di stampa e di comunicazione.

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